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In Mayor Brand’s new sales tax measure, parks get the nod, but not arts

For the past couple of months, as organizers of the Fresno Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Initiative worked to gather enough signatures to quality the sales-tax measure for the November ballot, there’s been uncertainty about a public-safety tax-increase proposal floating around. If both measures qualified, would two-thirds of voters look kindly on approving not one but two tax increases? Would it come down to essentially an either/or situation: uniformed officers on the street vs. places for our kids to play?

With a City Hall announcement today, the situation got even more complicated — or a lot simpler, depending on your perspective. Mayor Lee Brand is proposing a one-half cent increase in sales tax in the City of Fresno that would fund both public safety and parks. If this measure is supported by two-thirds of the voters, it will raise between $44 and $50 million dollars a year, according to the city.

Half the money would go toward police and fire, including hiring between 160 and 200 additional new police officers, firefighters and civilian support personnel. The other half would triple the annual parks budget and go toward implementing most of the recommendations of the Parks Master Plan.

And how would funding for the arts fare? In the Fresno for Parks ballot measure — which would raise taxes by ⅜ of a cent — arts and culture would get a dedicated funding stream to the tune of an estimated $4.5 million a year. The city’s split proposal does not specifically identify arts funding, says city spokesman Mark Standriff.

“But it certainly will be considered as part of the 1/4 cent going to parks if the measure passes,” he told me.

The city’s proposal could consolidate two ballot measures that some people might see as competing against each other, thus making it an easier sell for tax-shy voters. And having one measure instead of two might unite the public safety and parks/arts constituencies, giving it a better chance of passing. (Remember that getting two-thirds of voters to agree to anything can be a mighty high hurdle.)

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Related story: Will two-thirds of Fresnans agree to pay a little extra for arts and parks? Campaign to put a sales-tax increase on the November ballot is in full swing

But there are potential pitfalls as well. Parks/arts supporters might not feel comfortable voting to raise taxes for public safety, which is already a big part of the city budget and traditionally is covered by other funding methods. (If anyone wants to oppose such a measure, be sure that police and fire pensions will become part of negative campaign ads.) And while the city’s measure would raise slightly more revenue overall than the parks/arts measure by itself, dividing it between public safety and parks would obviously reduce the amount for parks (and, hopefully, arts).

Larry Powell, co-chair of Fresno for Parks and former Fresno County school superintendent, reacted cautiously to today’s news from the city.

“We haven’t taken an official position because it just came out,” he said of the proposed ballot measure. “We still have a lot of constituents still to talk to. But we are encouraged that the mayor came out with something positive about parks. It shows there’s some common ground.”

Powell’s three initial areas of concern:

• A 50-50 split between public safety and parks “won’t work,” he says. More money should go to parks. “Is there a place that we could feel comfortable, the mayor could feel comfortable, the city council could feel more comfortable? We hope so. There might be a chance for some different version of the mayor’s proposal.”

• The 15-year time frame in the mayor’s measure is half of the 30 years mandated in the proposed parks measure. Fifteen years just isn’t long enough to make transformative changes in Fresno’s quality of life, he says.

• The arts isn’t mentioned in the mayor’s measure. “That’s one of the things that makes it hard for me to recommend supporting it,” Powell says. “For me it’s a deal-breaker to leave the arts out, because great cities have great parks and wonderful arts programs.”

In the meantime, Fresno for Parks will continue to gather as many signatures as it can. Powell says the campaign is close, but it’s trying for 30% more signatures than the minimum to make up for any that are ineligible.

The next few days will be important. There is sure to be a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes as the City Council ponders putting the mayor’s proposal on the ballot. (Update: The Bee polled several of the council members, and it doesn’t look good for his proposal.)

Remember, too, that parks and arts supporters are an important political constituency. And Fresno for Parks has a certain amount of leverage in that it is running a public campaign with thousands of citizen supporters. If organizers are able to strike an agreeable compromise with the mayor, they could withdraw their ballot measure, thus making everything tidy. If not, they could move forward, leaving two measures on the ballot. In that case, November could get messy.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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